Things can get heated in our national forests, as the timber industry, environmentalists, recreationists and more fight for their right to use our woodlands. This Gator works to bring harmony to our nation’s wild areas – and for diversity in forestry.
March 12, 2012, McKenzie River Ranger District, Willamette National Forest, western Oregon
Terry Baker, a new district ranger, had battled dozens of raging fires in his 13 years with the U.S. Forest Service. But the one facing him tonight in the crowded Upper McKenzie Community Center threatened to dwarf them all – and not a single match had been lit.
For months, environmentalists had been protesting the “Goose Project,” a wildfire-prevention plan designed by his Forest Service predecessor to thin 2,100 overgrown acres of the 1.7 million-acre Willamette National Forest, with the trees being sold to local timber companies. Just months after Baker (BSF ’04) took command of the McKenzie River Ranger District in late 2011, opposition to the Goose Project had exploded, with the local paper, River Reflections, as the chosen forum for community outrage. In its pages, readers sparred about potential harm to the forest and its northern spotted owls, and labeled Baker and his fellow foresters “greedy” – to name the mildest of epithets.
The controversy was tearing apart this rural community in the Cascade Mountains.
If you want to lead people, you have to make an effort to connect with them and give them reason to believe in you.
— Terry Baker —
So Baker had called tonight’s meeting to share the forestry science behind the plan and discuss people’s concerns. He’d talk first; then his staff would take over.
No uniforms, he had told them: “You’ll find out why later.”
At 7 p.m. sharp, wearing his green Forest Service work shirt and pants, Baker stepped to the podium and smiled at the 100 or so faces glaring back. Taking a deep breath, he welcomed everyone, stressing the need for openness and mutual respect.
Then, as an ornithologist might say, the proverbial owl droppings hit the fan.
Audience members shouted that the project would damage the forest, ruin their peaceful community and destroy the owls’ nesting habits.
To their surprise, Baker calmly explored each objection, demonstrating that most of their fears were unwarranted. The threats to wildlife? The Forest Service had considered those, but maybe more detailed risk assessment needed to be done, he admitted, taking notes.
Gradually tension in the room eased. But a core group wouldn’t give up.
“You don’t care anything about the community!” one man yelled.
An hour in, Baker asked the Forest Service employees sitting in the audience to stand.
“I want you to look at these people,” he told the crowd. “They go to church with you, they’re your kids’ baseball coaches. They live in and care about this community as much as you do, and you have a responsibility to treat them with respect.”
“I’m in uniform,” continued Baker, his voice rising. “I’m doing this so you can hurl all your anger at me. But they are your neighbors, and you should talk to them as such.”
That was the switch that turned an angry town hall into a community-building effort, says Baker, recalling the moment seven years later. The most vocal opponents quietly left the building; most people stayed to have one-on-ones with the staff.
Baker’s problems with the Goose Project were far from over – the Forest Service ended up being litigated and was forced to conduct an environmental impact statement, leading to small changes in the original plan. However, the 2012 meeting marked a watershed in Baker’s evolution as a leader.
“I realized my beliefs about valuing people resonate with others,” Baker told Leadership Nature podcast in 2017.
In 2018, based largely on his exemplary leadership at McKenzie River, Baker was tapped as CEO of the Society of American Foresters, becoming the first African American in the role. As such, he represents 11,000 foresters and forestry students across the nation, doing public outreach and advocating in the halls of Congress so everyone understands the importance of trained foresters to our ecosystem.
“You can manage anyone,” he said on Leadership Nature. “If you want to lead people, you have to make an effort to connect with them and give them reason to believe in you.”
Baker’s path to forestry was serendipitous.
A native of Marianna, in the Florida Panhandle, Baker grew up helping his grandparents on their small farm. His earliest memory is of taking part in the annual family ritual of making sugarcane syrup. It was the children’s job to feed the stalks through the press, and 8‑year-old Terry and his older brother, Tyrell, grabbed fistfuls of cane as their uncle led an old white bull in circles to power the classic setup.
Education was highly valued by the Baker family, especially by his hardworking single mother, Velma, and so in high school Terry’s thoughts turned to college. A talent at nurturing flowers made him consider majoring in landscape architecture or ornamental horticulture at Florida A&M University.
One night, while working at a convenience store during his senior year, Baker got a surprise phone call. It was a recruiter who had tracked down Baker through a college fair, and he was offering him a full scholarship through the Multicultural Strategic Workforce Initiatives program. This federal partnership between the US Forest Service and historically black land-grant universities provides tuition and benefits so minority students can enter the natural resource fields. Baker would spend his first two years at FAMU before transferring to UF/IFAS’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation, where he would earn a bachelor’s degree in Forest Resources and Conservation, plus a second bachelor’s in Agricultural Sciences from FAMU.
Baker was intrigued but mystified by the field that was welcoming him with open arms.
“I had no idea that forestry as a profession existed,” he says. “Not only that, I had no idea that one of the largest national forests east of the Mississippi was 40 miles from my house.”
With his mother’s blessing, Baker said yes to the scholarship, interning that summer at the nearby Apalachicola National Forest, home to pine sand hills and swamps, spring-fed rivers, bobcats, black bears and alligators. He would continue interning at national forests throughout college.
From Hotshot to Star Gator
By the time Baker transferred to UF in fall 2001, he had already established himself as a student to watch.
In spring 2000, he’d taken a semester off from FAMU to train with the Asheville Interagency Hotshot Crew, an elite team of wildland firefighters based in North Carolina. The Hotshots respond to large fires in remote areas, and their grueling training pushes firefighters to their physical and mental limits.
“One day, we did a run that ended up being 11.8 miles, plus another eight hours of clearing brush and trees,” says Baker. “I think I lost 20 to 30 pounds in those four months!”
Firefighting is just one aspect of forest management, as Baker soon learned at UF.
“As a forester, you have to be well versed in science and hydrology and ecology, and even, to a certain extent, engineering,” Baker says.
Today, Baker’s work at the SAF involves regular collaboration with his former UF professors, who distinctly remember their star student.
Professor Taylor Stein, graduate program coordinator at the School of Forest Resources and Conservation, still marvels at undergrad Baker’s willingness to volunteer for new experiences, from studying in Costa Rica to chairing the UF student chapter of the Society of American Foresters.
“Little did I know that he would later be running the entire organization!” says Stein. “He has put a personal face on the forestry profession.”
A secret to Baker’s success, says Stein: “He doesn’t pretend forestry is all about the ecological sciences,” adding that Baker’s experiences growing up as an African American male on the Panhandle shape how he views and makes decisions about forests today:
“Terry is one of the few people who knows how to put the sciences within a social and cultural context to make holistic decisions about the management of forests.”
After earning dual bachelor’s degrees in 2004, Baker continued what would become a 19-year-long career with the US Forest Service (1999–2018), interrupted only by a stint at Yale University to earn a Master of Forestry degree.
National forests, unlike national parks, are managed for multiple purposes that are often wildly divergent: recreation, timber, grazing, wildlife, water quality and more. Baker served at nine of them, in Florida, Oregon, Nebraska, Arizona and Colorado, rising from forester to district ranger to deputy forest supervisor. Whatever standard-issue Forest Service headgear he wore – yellow hard hat, green baseball cap – Baker always followed the advice his mother gave him long ago: Never put yourself above anyone else, and always pitch in when there’s work to be done.
Even as an undergraduate, Baker possessed the “soft skills” needed to interact with a wide variety of interest groups, says Professor Tim Martin, co-director of UF’s Forest Biology Research Cooperative.
“I think Terry’s understanding of the value of interpersonal relationships is one of the strengths he carried into his professional life,” says Martin.
Inclusion in the Forest
In 2017, Terry married fellow Forest Service professional Jessica Baker, and the couple moved to Colorado, where Terry took over as deputy supervisor of the Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest. They had barely finished unpacking in 2018 when Terry got an unexpected call: How would he like to become CEO of the Society of American Foresters?
Stepping away from his federal career was something Baker had never planned, he says, but an opportunity to lead the prestigious 119-year-old nonprofit was too good to pass up.
Terry and Jessica relocated to D.C. in fall 2018, with the new CEO trading his drab Forest Service duds for tailored suits and silk ties. As the face and voice of SAF, Baker raises the profile of forestry and foresters, while making the profession more inclusive.
“I’m just a little different,” he laughs, noting his racial visibility gets him a foot in the door with the media, who might otherwise overlook forestry concerns.
People of color are rare in forestry for many reasons, Baker says, but a major factor is the profession, like wooded acreage itself, tends to be passed down over generations, usually from father to son, replicating the gender and racial homogeneity of land-owning Americans 100 years ago or more.
“That in itself is probably the biggest barrier [to people of color entering the profession]: not seeing yourself physically represented in the community, even if you value the woods and the experiences of hiking, camping and hunting,” says Baker.
To increase diversity and inclusion, SAF offers postsecondary scholarships to women and people of color, and Baker is widening that effort by promoting environmental education in primary and secondary schools. The more children and teens understand the good that forests and foresters do, the more young people will aspire to become natural resource professionals, the organization reasons.
Martin admires the “pragmatic, non-confrontational approach” Baker brings to diversifying forestry.
“Terry has helped SAF and his fellow foresters understand what it means to be a minority in forestry, what some of the barriers might be to entering and staying in the profession, and how we can work together to make things better,” says Martin.
Baker is also assisting the UF School of Forest Resources & Conservation’s efforts to diversify their student body and the profession.
Baker “is a brilliant example of what a successful forestry student can be like,” says Stein.
Baker’s leadership has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the Gator Nation. This year, the UF Alumni Association honored Baker at the annual 40 Under 40 event.
Terry and Jessica flew down to Gainesville for the April ceremony, where CALS Dean Elaine Turner praised Baker’s “career path and achievements [which] show future students the possibilities available to them with an agricultural and life sciences degree.”
The shiny 40 Under 40 statue now rests proudly on the desk in Baker’s office. But tucked away in a drawer is a humble object he treasures just as much. It’s a yellowed clipping from River Reflections, the small Oregon paper at the epicenter of the Goose Project controversy. In its ink-stained pages, locals denounced the Forest Service’s plans and lambasted Baker himself.
But not in the newspaper’s January 9, 2014, edition.
A banner announces “Reader’s Picks for the Best of the McKenzie River,” with Baker’s smiling face underneath the headline, “Man of the Year.”